When IAF Chopper Came Crashing Down and Villagers in Budgam Thought India-Pak War Broke Out
Eyewitnesses said they heard a loud bang and saw the IAF chopper coming down with its “tail burning.” Six IAF personnel, including two pilots, died in the crash.
Wreckage of the MI-17 chopper that crashed in Budgam district of Jammu and Kashmir (PTI)
Budgam: On Wednesday, following an intense aerial fight between the air forces of India and Pakistan, IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman was held captive by the neighbouring country, while India said it had shot down an Pakistani F-16 jet for violating the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir.
Around the same time, an Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter crashed in Budgam near Srinagar, killing two pilots and four others onboard, besides a local. Over the next two days, the diplomatic face-offs and media frenzy to ensure the safe return of Abhinandan from Pakistan consumed the nation.
As Indians cheered the wing commander’s return through the Wagah Border late in the evening on Friday, the mortal remains of the pilots and IAF officers were consigned to flames with full military honours in their respective towns.
Life has also changed for the villagers of Gariend Kallan in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, where the chopper had crashed, as they lost one of their own.
Kifayat Ahmad Ganai, who had run towards the burning debris that fell on a brick kiln, died. “His body was burnt beyond recognition with a severed leg. Initially, we thought he was the pilot,” said Hilal, a student.
A day before the crash, the IAF had dropped bombs on Pakistani soil and the air was filled with cries of war in India and Pakistan.
The villagers thought ‘war had begun’ after shattered glass from a chopper, flying surprisingly low, started raining on the houses.
“I saw the chopper. It had caught fire in its tail and was coming down quickly,” said Aaqib Hussain.
“An intense chopper sound was followed by a bang,” said Hussain, a class 12 student.
The speed at which the burning aircraft was falling, Hussain and other villagers were terrified, thinking it will come down on their houses.
There were two more bangs before the tail of the chopper landed just a few feet away from a house, the villagers said, while some pieces of the chopper hit the trees before it came down in an open space with a huge bang.
The place where it crashed is metres away from villagers’ houses. There was another bang loud enough to scare even villagers living as far as 7km.
Half-a-dozen boys from the village were strolling in the same area when the chopper crashed and went up in flames.
“It banged on the ground and there were huge flames,” said Hilal Ahmad, whose class 10 exams were just days ahead. Ahmad was worried that the paper will be postponed as tensions are growing in the Valley.
“After this crash, we were sure that war has started,” said Ahmad.
But before these boys could understand what had happened, one among them — Kifayat — ran towards the burning debris.
“Then there was another bang and we also ran towards the flames,” said Hilal.
For some time, Kifayat’s friends couldn’t fathom that he was no more.
It was only after they found that Kifayat was missing and someone pointed to the charred remains of his clothes that they realised he had died.
Initially, the number of people on board could not be confirmed as the bodies were under the debris.
Officials said it was an Mi-17 chopper and all six Indian Air Force personnel on board were killed.
A probe is underway to ascertain the reason behind the crash. Witnesses said the chopper came from the north-west direction.
Gariend Kallan, the village where the chopper crashed, has about 300 households. Though just about 25km from Jammu and Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar, the village lacks proper road and other basic facilities.
Surrounded by paddy fields and a railway line running close to the village, most of the people are farmers. The villagers said most of them have never boarded an aircraft or seen it from close quarters.
Flames were yet to be doused on Wednesday but people could be seen carrying parts of the chopper from the debris home.
Old men were collecting metal pieces, aiming to sell them as scrap.
On Friday, some boys, while searching at the crash site, which was heavy with putrid, found a pistol. It was handed over to the police later.
Burned oxygen masks, pouches, shoe-sole and charred pieces of clothes lay on the ground.
Kifayat is survived by his mother and four siblings, two among them are married.
His father had died when he was a toddler. Growing in abject poverty, Kifayat used to work as a labourer often to support his studies and education.
While people from other villages keep visiting the spot out of curiosity to see the aircraft, Kifayat’s friends keep gazing at the spot and recalling that horrific scene.
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